A symphony of dogwhistling

February 17, 2011

Australian Federal politics hit a new low this week.

On February 15, funerals were held for victims of the Christmas Island shipwreck on December 15 last year. The media were right there to show us the terrible grief of the relatives, some of whom were detainees flown down to Sydney by the government. One was an eight-year-old boy who lost his entire family; only his father’s body was recovered to be laid to rest. It’s difficult to see how anyone viewing the footage, or seeing the pictures of a devastated woman wailing uncontrollably, could fail to be moved – and indeed, most of the commentary was entirely sympathetic.

And then there was Shadow Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison. In a radio interview with Chris Smith on 2GB, he made it clear that he completely opposed the government’s decision to use public funds to fly the relatives down for the funerals, provide them with accommodation and then return them to Christmas Island.

He played the ‘waste’ card: ‘its only one of a litany of cost blowouts’.

He played the ‘lost control of the borders’ card: ‘as long as they will not stop the boats then these costs – whether its motels, or this incident, whether its excursions, whether it’s all the things that are taking place – none of that stops.’

He played the ‘community concerns’ card: ‘I think people would be, rightly from what they’ve heard, angry about this’.

And finished off with the ‘fairness’ card: ‘if people wanted to attend the funeral from Sydney, for example, who may have been relatives of those who wanted these funeral services, well, they could have held the service on Christmas Island and like any other Australian, who would have wanted to go to the funeral of someone close to them, they would have paid for themselves to get on a plane and go there.’

At every turn he was encouraged by Smith, who encouraged Morrison to ‘go hard’ to find out just how much taxpayer money was spent. In fact, Smith went even further, pointing out that no flood victim had been buried at public expense. Here, Morrison balked, but only for a moment. Together, they displayed an incredible amount of insensitivity and shameless exploitation of others’ tragedy.

The outcry was immediate from all sides. Yet the Coalition backed Morrison up. Fiona Nash said it was ‘entirely inappropriate’ to spend the money. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott refused to criticise, even going so far as to say Morrison had a point. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey didn’t toe the party line, and even he didn’t directly address Morrison’s comments, saying only, ‘I would never seek to deny a parent or a child from saying goodbye to their relative’.

Even that mild criticism drew fire from within Coalition ranks, however. In an extraordinary attack, an anonymous ‘senior Liberal staffer’ charged that Morrison was only stating Coalition party policy, and that Hockey was guilty of manipulating the tragedy and grandstanding. The article went on to call for him to be sacked.

That’s right. Hockey, by saying that he would show compassion for bereaved relatives, committed an unforgivable act that should cost him his job. Morrison was entirely right to say it was a ‘waste’, and to insinuate some kind of special treatment that was denied to ordinary Australians.

Only Judith Troeth and Russell Broadbent – both of whom have frequently spoken out urging compassion and fair treatment for asylum seekers – actually distanced themselves from Morrison.

Eventually Morrison conceded that he might have erred – but not in the substance of his comments. He said nothing about his insensitivity, his shameless dogwhistling or his exploitation of a terrible situation. No, it was his timing that was at fault. This mealy-mouthed excuse for an apology was praised by Abbott as showing ‘a lot of guts’. And, lest anyone think there was an actual backdown happening, Abbott went on to say how important a ‘tough border protection’ policy was, even if they ‘went a little bit too far’.

A little bit?

That was just the start of a veritable symphony of dogwhistling this week. Senator Gary Humphries got his solo next, tabling a petition to Parliament calling for a moratorium on Muslim immigration and to give priorities to Christians. He hastened to assure us that he didn’t support the ideas in the petition: ‘Many muslims are my friends and I hope they’ll remain my friends’, he said. But he had an ‘obligation to fulfil or place before the Parliament points of view of citizens’.

Seems entirely reasonable, doesn’t it? It’s not that Humphries wanted to do it – why, some of his best friends are Muslims – but he just didn’t have a choice. After all, it’s important to make sure community concerns are brought to Parliament.

The petition was signed by three people.

That’s right. Three people are apparently enough to ensure that their views are brought to the attention of our highest elected representatives. What a wonderful democracy we live in, where even the tiniest of groups have such champions.

But it’s interesting how often this exact same petition, apparently the work of the Christian Democrats, seems to crop up – 48 times to date since 2007, according to the Canberra Times, by representatives from all sides of politics. Nor is it even the first time Humphries has tabled it.

Apparently Humphries thinks these three people have such an urgent and representative community concern that it warrants multiple submissions. And he has the backing of his leader.

The Coalition would have us believe they are just letting the voices of the community be heard, even if they don’t agree with the sentiments.

It begs the question – are the Coalition seriously suggesting that they table every petition they receive? When was the last time they tabled a petition calling for something they didn’t at least tacitly support? Let’s take same-sex marriage. There are dozens of petitions out there calling for marriage equality – yet a quick perusal of petitions presented to the House show that Coalition MPs (including Morrison) tabled only those opposing the idea.

So I suggest an experiment. Do exactly as the Christian Democrats have – get up a petition with three signatures. Call for the immediate release from detention of asylum seekers who are unaccompanied minors, either to extended family or fostering in the community. Send the petition to 35 MPs across the spectrum of Parliament. And see how many actually bother to table it.

The dogwhistling didn’t end with Humphries. Morrison got to make an encore performance, courtesy a suspiciously convenient leak to the Sydney Morning Herald. According to the unnamed source, at a Shadow Cabinet meeting last year, Morrison apparently urged his colleagues to ‘capitalise’ on anti-Muslim sentiments in some areas of the Australian community, particularly the ‘failure’ of Muslim immigrants to ‘integrate’. Apparently this drew sharp criticism from Foreign Affairs Shadow Julie Bishop and former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, who pointed out Coalition immigration policy was ‘non-discriminatory’. Ruddock, it seems, was particularly vocal.

Philip Ruddock. The man who oversaw the shameful conduct of Australia over the Tampa crisis.

Other attendees at that meeting agreed there was anti-Muslim sentiment, but thought it could be ‘misconstrued’ if they actively campaigned against Muslim immigration.

On the face of things, this looks like someone in the Coalition took advantage of the current situation to metaphorically hang Morrison out to dry. But then there’s Steve Ciobo’s comments on AM Agenda this morning. While he wouldn’t comment directly on the alleged leak – pointing out only that he wasn’t there so couldn’t say if it was true, he was more than happy to wax lyrical on the general question of immigration – and this is where the dogwhistles became deafening.

It was almost possible to play ‘dogwhistle bingo’ with what he said.

The Coalition are ‘listening to the voices of the community’.

There are ‘community’ concerns about migrants who apparently don’t want to ‘integrate’.

‘The Australian people’ have a genuine concern that people who come to our culture, which is ‘quintessentially Australian’, should ‘embrace Australian values’.

We have to remember that Tamil Tigers – terrorists who are known to target innocent civilians – came in ‘illegally’ on boats. And Labor made it easy for them to do it.

Well that’s my scorecard filled up.

At no time did Ciobo distance himself from Morrison’s alleged comments to Shadow Cabinet. Oh, he didn’t come right out and say he agreed, but then he didn’t have to, did he?

The ‘leak’ is convenient. It allows the Coalition to insulate the leadership and be seen to repudiate the most extreme statements against asylum seekers – and Muslims in particular – while clearly signalling their affirmation of the general idea. Morrison is a perfect mouthpiece for this; he’s already in trouble this week over his comments about the funerals, and is well-known for his hardline stance against boat-borne asylum seekers.

The fact that there’s no condemnation of Morrison is telling, as is the fact that so far, the only people to speak on the matter have been those who claim they ‘weren’t there’. Shadow Environment spokesperson, Greg Hunt, made the by-now familiar statement that the Coalition is all about fairness and equal treatment – but went on to say he endorsed the Coalition’s suggestion that government funding be cut to ‘Islamic’ schools in Indonesia. Why? Community concerns. ‘I think you’ll find that lots of people have very strong views,’ he said.

Interesting that the Coalition only seems interested in listening to those that are anti-Islamic and anti-asylum seeker.

This week’s events come on the heels of a slew of xenophobic comments from the Coalition. Kevin Andrews – the man responsible for the shameful treatment of Dr Mohammed Haneefwarning about the danger of ‘enclaves’ of Muslims who refuse to ‘properly’ disperse into the community, and force us to eat halal meat and we don’t even know it. Senator Mitch Fifield suggested Australia would become a nation of ‘parallel societies’ where sharia law reigned in some areas. Senator Cory Bernardi – the man who called for a ban on burqas because ‘criminals’ might use them to disguise their identities – thundered about the looming disaster of a ‘cultural divide’, and urged us all to do something ‘before it’s too late’.

‘I, for one, don’t want to eat meat butchered in the name of an ideology that is mired in sixth century brutality and is anathema to my own values,’ he said.

It’s worth noting that none of these comments received any criticism from the Coalition leadership.

Unbelievably, Fifield also went on to caution us against the danger of ‘rising ethnic hatred’ – which could be prevented, he suggested, by making sure that ‘everyone’ signed up to ‘mainstream values’. Presumably, these are the same values to which Ciobo referred.

And just what are these values?

According to Ciobo, they are: respect for the rule of law, tolerance, and equal respect for men and women.

Yes, you read that right.

Excuse me, I’m just going to check on the neighbour’s dog. I think her ears may be bleeding right now.

This is indefensible. It’s xenophobia of the most despicable kind – an inflammatory mix of lies, fear-mongering and appeal to the idea that someone else might be getting a better deal. As for the unmitigated gall of suggesting that immigrants are all basically bigoted, sexist criminals …

There have been calls for Scott Morrison to be sacked. But really, what’s the point? He’s just saying what most of the Coalition apparently believe (with the notable, and commendable, exceptions of Troeth and Broadbent).

If the Coalition claim otherwise, they should be pursued until they either completely repudiate the sentiments or admit that. This shouldn’t be allowed to die with the news cycle.

And they could do worse than actually practise their own avowed set of ‘Australian values’.

UPDATE: The article calling for Hockey to be sacked has been taken down from the Menzies House site. The editor claims this is because readers objected to the fact that it was published anonymously. And just who were these ‘readers’? According to Michelle Grattan, it seems that one of them was Cory Bernardi. Curious, that. It should be noted, however, that the original article was attributed to a ‘senior adviser to a shadow Minister’, and that the site had agreed to their request to remain anonymous.

Perhaps a copy exists out there, somewhere. In the meantime, thanks to @Andy_Downunda for finding most of the text quoted in the Ozpolitic Forum, about halfway down the page.


Myth-busting: New detention centres

October 25, 2010

It was only a matter of time before the lies – I’m sorry, the myths – got so thick on the ground that another one of these posts was going to be needed.

This time it’s about asylum seekers. Last week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a series of new initiatives, including releasing children and ‘at-risk’ families into community detention rather than keeping them in detention centres. She also announced that two new centres would be developed, at Northam in Western Australia and Inverbrackie in South Australia. These centres would enable the dismantling of the temporary accommodation on Christmas Island, and mean that motels did not have to be used when numbers were too great.

The respective communities erupted. They held public meetings, in which they vented their spleen at the government, and at asylum seekers in general. They were ‘betrayed’, they shouted. Having ‘illegals’ in their towns (or even within 20 km of them) would be disastrous. Services would be under unacceptable strain. The Adelaide Hills are a known tourist spot – the tourism economy would suffer, because no one would want to come there. For that matter, where’s the benefit to us? They should have asked us. None of this would have happened if the government wasn’t so ‘soft’ on these people. Worst of all, what if their kids came to our schools?

All of this, of course, is based on a few simple, but utterly toxic myths.

Myth No. 1: Our detention centres are overcrowded because the government ‘softened’ its border protection policies. That’s why it has to build new centres now.

The Coalition likes to say that those who engage in the despicable trade of exploiting desperate people have ‘a good product to sell’, because refugees are no longer processed in Nauru or subject to Temporary Protection Visas. This is an outrageous piece of outright fabrication.

People smugglers do not sell an outcome. They are not in the business of making sure their ‘clients’ are safely delivered to the destination of their choice. They are in the business of making money – of taking advantage of those whose circumstances are so dire that they will be willing to sell everything they own, and sometimes sell themselves into hock for years to come. And they know there will always be a market. Whether they get intercepted in the Indian Ocean or make it all the way to Christmas Island makes no difference to them. The money has already changed hands, somewhere back in the home countries or in Indonesia.

Understand, we’re not talking about some kind of cut-price cruise line, here. Someone fleeing to another country for asylum doesn’t get to shop around. Usually, they’re stuck with doing an under-the-table deal which is more like a gamble – because people smugglers don’t guarantee safe delivery. They take the money, shove the refugees on a boat which is, more often than not – barely seaworthy, hire a crew from off the docks, and then wash their hands of the whole affair. If the boat sinks in the Indian Ocean and the crew are taken into custody, it’s an acceptable loss, because the important thing is the tens of thousands of dollars in the hands of those who bear no sense of accountability for whatever happens after the cash hits the palm.

People smugglers don’t care.

So there is no ‘good product to sell’. This isn’t taking advantage of a clearance sale, or shopping on Amazon because the dollar is near parity. People who need to flee will do so if they possibly can, even if it means taking the chance that they will be detained indefinitely – because at least on Christmas Island, their chances of being tortured and executed are minimal.

Myth No. 2: People have a ‘right’ to feel anxious about the idea of having a detention centre nearby.

This is the kind of statement that prompted Julian Burnside’s accusation that Australians are racists – and I can certainly understand his frustration. It’s okay to worry about the idea of refugees near you? Why?

Detention centres have existed in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne for years. There is no appreciable rise in the crime rate that could be attributed to the presence of people held behind security fences. Services to the community have not become stretched. (Sydney’s road bottlenecks can hardly be blamed on people who are not even allowed out to walk to the shops.) There is no evidence that refugees, detained in Villawood and Broadmeadows, take away anything from the permanent residents. What’s more, the government have promised that there will be no danger of that happening in Northam and Inverbrackie. If there is a possibility that services might be compromised, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen further committed to bolster those services wherever necessary.

But wait, cried the residents of Woodside (near Inverbrackie) – then they’ll get better services than we do, and that’s not fair. There’s no basis for this at all. The government promised no negative effect on services to the community. That’s everyone – and even if they decide to pay for a few on-site doctors in the detention centres, that hardly constitutes favouritism. At worst, it preserves the status quo.

The anxiety appears to go further, though. Listening to the people in Woodside and Northam, it seems that there is a fundamental objection to the presence of asylum seekers anywhere on Australian soil. If they’re housed in the middle of the desert, that’s marginally acceptable – although it’s clear that many people think even that is too ‘soft’. Suggest putting them in – or even near – a community, however, and the hysteria ramps up to an incredible degree.

Myth No. 3: The tourism economy in the Adelaide Hills would be under threat, and there’d be no economic benefit to local businesses.

This is just plain wrong. Detention centres usually source their supplies from local businesses wherever possible – if anything, boosting the economy. This was pointed out to some of the Woodside protesters. Their response? That won’t happen with us – the government will just go to Adelaide. There’s no basis for this assertion whatsoever. It flies in the face of existing practice – a practice the government has committed to continue.

As for the tourism question – well, where to start? The detention centre is located at the existing disused army base at Inverbrackie. Like most army bases, it’s difficult to distinguish the housing from what might be found in any suburb (with the exception of high-end areas, of course). The houses look like all the others. Sure, there’ll be a fence, and guards, but there were guards when the base was in use.

The people making this objection seem to think that the existing base will be razed, and a giant edifice of ugly concrete with coils of barbed wire, observation towers, spotlights and slavering German Shepherds will take its place. That simply isn’t going to happen. In addition, Inverbrackie is only one small part of the Adelaide Hills. To suggest that tourists will shy away from the entire region because there are refugees living on an old army base is – not to put too fine a point on it – ludicrous.

Myth No. 4: The government betrayed us by not consulting us prior to making the decision.

The answer to this one is – no, they didn’t. The government is under no obligation to ask people if they want a detention centre within easy driving distance. In fact, the government doesn’t have to ask to do a lot of things – build offices, grant land for prisons, or acquire people’s homes for infrastructure projects. You may not agree with it, but it’s how the country is set up. So, no, the government was never required to go cap in hand to people within 100km of Northam and ask if it was okay with them to have a detention centre an hour’s drive away. They weren’t even required to announce it.

Myth No. 5: Having ‘their’ kids in ‘our’ schools is dangerous.

I’m sorry, but this is racist.

It’s completely unfounded. There is little difference between a refugee and a newly-arrived immigrant child. Both may have language difficulties. Both may take time to build social bonds with other children (although that’s true of any kid in a new school). The kid who had to endure a long and potentially dangerous sea voyage, followed by detention, may have emotional and psychological issues – who wouldn’t?

The people who made this objection couldn’t say exactly what was wrong with the idea of refugee kids going to school in their communities. For the most part, they fell back on the old ‘but they came here illegally’ argument. Leaving aside for the moment that it’s completely incorrect to refer to asyum seekers as illegal, how can that possibly indicate danger to other children? Are these people afraid that the kid from Sri Lanka might suddenly leap up in the middle of story time and rip open his parka to reveal a suicide bomb vest? Turn on his fellow kids and attempt to stab them with safety scissors?

Please.

Maybe it’s about overcrowding. Maybe the people of Woodside are worried about potentially increasing class sizes. But wait – didn’t the government already say that if there was any possibility of strain to community services, that they would address that problem?

So what lies at the bottom of this objection to asylum seeker children in schools? Whenever politicians are asked about this, they always give the same answer: it’s understandable that people would feel anxious.

See Myth No. 2 above.

Of course, no amount of mythbusting done here is going to matter in this debate – because the politicians aren’t interested in the real situation.

The Coalition sees nothing wrong with xenophobia, apparently. Jamie Briggs, Member for Mayo, was highly visible at Woodside, nodding sympathetically whenever someone told them they were afraid or angry or betrayed. Scott Morrison, Shadow Immigration Minister, chastised the government for not taking ‘community concerns’ into account. Senator Mitch Fifield tutted about the ‘failure’ of the government’s asylum seeker policies putting unfair strain on the people of Woodside and Northam.

The Labor government is no better. Chris Bowen says he ‘understands there are concerns’. That’s ‘reasonable’.

And not one of these people actually stand up and say, ‘No, you’re wrong. You have a completely incorrect idea of the real situation. You’ve listened to scare-mongering and lies, and you’re letting xenophobia control you. I believe you’re better than this. I believe you really are a compassionate person, and wouldn’t want to see anyone suffer. Sit down with me and let me show you the facts, come and meet some asylum seekers, maybe then you can see this fear for what it is – a shameful political tactic that considers ruining people’s lives and well-being a good way for scoring points in some obscure game.’

Maybe it wouldn’t change die-hard xenophobes. But wouldn’t it be an amazing and wonderful thing if someone other than Senator Sarah Hanson-Young actually got out there and tried??

Imagine if your local member (mine is Martin Ferguson, Minister for Resources, Energy and Tourism) stood up in front othe media and said, ‘You have nothing to fear. We were wrong to let you think you did.’

Yeah, never going to happen. But sometimes, you have to dream.

It’s either that or weep.


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